Travel Story Splendid isolation of Thailand's temples

Sukhothai is considered to be the birthplace of Thailand.
Picture: Ronan O'Connell

Sukhothai Historical Park is far less crowded than Angkor Wat in nearby Cambodia.

As the sun sets over Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat, local officials are tasked with restricting the number of tourists who can access the historic site to take photos of this beautiful spectacle. So busy has Cambodia’s No.1 tourist attraction become that measures have been put in place to tackle overcrowding, including daily limits on the number of visitors and a doubling in the price of admission to $47.

None of that is relevant to me right now as I sit alone, 700km away in a similarly extraordinary ancient temple complex. It feels as if I’m the only person savouring the sunset in Thailand’s Sukhothai Historical Park, a sprawling area home to the remains of the birthplace of this nation.

Sukhothai is where Thailand is considered to have been born in the 13 century and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a truly extraordinary place, one of the great ancient ruins of South-East Asia. Yet both times I’ve visited there has been a mere smattering of tourists.

Whereas Angkor Wat received some 2.5 million visitors in 2017, I can’t even find such published figures for Sukhothai Historical Park. I would confidently guess it would pale in comparison, as would the number of visitors to Thailand’s other main historical park in Ayutthaya, which was the second capital of Thailand, after Sukhothai.

Like Sukhothai, Ayutthaya is embellished by the remains of an array of ancient monasteries, temples, pavilions, stupas and royal compounds. While Sukothai is somewhat remote, located 400km north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is a mere 90-minute drive north of the modern-day capital.

Bangkok was one of the world’s most visited cities last year so Ayutthaya should be a wildly popular day trip. Yet I see far more advertisements for day tours to the tourist-trap floating markets.

For whatever reason, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai are vastly overlooked. Which is great news for people like myself, who value them highly. Sukhothai is particularly fascinating as the place where so many aspects of Thai culture were forged. Not only was it the first independent Thai kingdom but during its glory era in the 13 and 14th centuries the Thai alphabet, Theravada Buddhism and the nation’s architectural style all came to the fore.

It is the latter of these which leaves me most entranced. In the heart of the Sukhothai Historical Park, Wat Mahathat is one of the oldest structures in Thailand. Its towering central stupa is adorned by complex inscriptions and stucco reliefs, and surrounded by a forest of time-worn pillars and a big seated Buddha.

Visitors are free to roam the wide roads, which criss-cross the park and are closed off to traffic. This central section of the park is thoughtfully laid out, decorated by a cluster of reservoirs and many wide lawns, making it an easy place to traverse on foot.

Ayutthaya also has a condensed section of ruins in the centre of the city, but in both places it is worthwhile hiring a taxi or a tuk-tuk for $30 a day to visit the more scattered sites. The most highly recommended places outside of the central park areas are Wat Chaiwatthanaram in Ayutthaya and Wat Si Chum in Sukhothai.

Perched on the edge of the Chao Phraya River, Wat Chaiwatthanaram was built almost 400 years ago in Khmer style, with a 35m-tall prang at its core. The focal point of Wat Si Chum, is a 15m-tall seated Buddha, wearing a gold silk sash, which is protected by the walls of the temple’s former main hall.

Standing at its feet, looking up at this giant Buddha, it is easy to picture what a grand kingdom once revolved around this site. 

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